8

To realize that one’s property has been searched is an unpleasant sensation. My first reaction to the knowledge was anger. It was monstrous that a stranger’s hands should open my suitcase, fumble among its contents, prying. But for the latched suitcase I might never have known. Ah, that was it! That was what was so infuriating. Not so much the prying and the fumbling but the attempt at secrecy, the fact that the fumbler thought that I would not know, that careful fastening of both latches on the suitcase. Inefficiency! He should have noticed that I had only fastened one latch. He should have noticed that I had left the plain white handkerchiefs uppermost in the drawer. Clumsy, fumbling oaf!

I went to the drawer and arranged the handkerchiefs as I had left them. I refastened the suitcase-one latch. I straightened the counterpane on the bed. Then, feeling a little calmer, I sat down. There was only one person who would search my room and take nothing from it-the spy. Having retrieved his camera and found the film missing he would naturally try my room. Naturally? Yes, because he had seen me watching through the writing-room window and would assume that since I was laying a trap for him I had developed the film and discovered the nature of his photographs. And then I remembered that at the bottom of my suitcase I had left two undeveloped rolls of film that I had used at Nice. I had not thought to see if they were still there. I got out the suitcase again and went through it very carefully. The rolls were gone. The spy was evidently leaving nothing to chance. I would do well to remember that in future.

If only I could have returned and caught him in the act. I spent a pleasurable half minute contemplating the scene. There would, I decided, have been very little left of the spy to hand over to Beghin. In my mind’s eye I dragged the whimpering wretch to his feet and flung him into the arms of the waiting agents.

It was with some surprise that I realized that this imaginary spy of mine was not Schimler. It was not even Koche. It was nobody at the Reserve. It was a vindictive rat of a man with an evil face, a revolver in his hip pocket, and a knife up his sleeve; a vicious, disgusting creature without a single redeeming quality; a sly, furtive wretch despised even by those who employed him.

Nothing, I thought bitterly, could have demonstrated more clearly my utter futility. It was perfect! Instead of trying to find out which of the twelve possible persons had searched my room, I was busily evolving a fairy-tale thirteenth. I deserved to fail.

“Now,” I said aloud; “get this into your head. This spy, this man or woman who took those photographs and your precious camera, this person who saw you through the writing-room window and locked you in like the helpless noodle you are while he took the camera off the chair, this person who came into this room looking among your clothes for his photographs, this person is real, he is alive, he is one of those people outside. He doesn’t look like a spy, you nitwit. He hasn’t got a vicious look and a revolver in his hip pocket. He’s real. He may have a white beard like old Duclos or bulging eyes like Roux. He may quote Hegel like Schimler or he may seem as sleepy as Koche. She may look austere and dry like Mrs. Clandon-Hartley or young and attractive like Mary Skelton. She may laugh like Frau Vogel or yearn like Mademoiselle Martin. He may be as fat as Herr Vogel, as thin as Major Clandon-Hartley, or as brown as Warren Skelton. He may be a patriot or a traitor, a crook or an honest man, or a bit of each. He may be old or young. She may be dark or fair, intelligent or stupid, rich or poor. And, whoever it is, you incompetent fool, you’re not doing yourself the slightest good sitting here.”

I got up and looked out of the window.

The Skeltons had just come up from the beach and were sitting down at a table on the lower terrace. Faintly I could hear their voices. Warren laughed once and struck a Napoleonic attitude. His sister shook her head vehemently. I wondered vaguely what they were talking about. If they had been down on the beach all the afternoon they might be able to give alibis to some of the other guests. For the searching of my room could have taken place only while I had been with Schimler or in the village telephoning Beghin. It had probably been the latter. I had, no doubt, been seen leaving the hotel. The path to the gate was visible from half the windows or from the writing-room. Perhaps while I had been planning to search Schimler’s room, Schimler had been planning to search mine. A pretty irony. Schimler, however, had known the number of my room. That is if it had been Schimler who had latched my suitcase twice instead of once. Perhaps his mind had been busy with the Birth of Tragedy at the time. Perhaps Koche had made the search, or Herr Vogel or Monsieur Duclos or…

But this was Friday. Only one day more and it would be time for me to go; and still I should be hoping, wondering, saying names to myself-“Koche, Schimler, Herr Vogel, Monsieur Duclos”-and still I should be here watching the hands of the clock move and doing nothing but wish. I must act. I must do something. I must hurry.

When I left my room I was very careful to lock the door and put the key in my pocket. Worry can play very neat tricks with the sense of humor.

I walked slowly down to the lower terrace. The Skeltons were still talking, but as I approached they looked up. They hailed me with unexpected eagerness.

“We’ve been looking for you.” He came towards me, took me by the arm and looked at me searchingly. “Have you heard yet?”

“Heard what?”

He led me firmly towards their table.

“He hasn’t heard,” he announced with satisfaction.

“Not heard?” echoed the girl. She rose and took my other arm. “Sit down, Mr. Vadassy, and listen.”

“The sensation of the week!” put in her brother.

“It’s too good to be true.”

“Will you tell him or shall I?”

“You. I’ll take the big scenes.”

Skelton suddenly pushed me into a chair and thrust a packet of cigarettes under my nose.

“Smoking steadies the nerves.”

“But what…?”

“A match?”

I lit the cigarette.

“You see,” put in the girl earnestly, “we don’t want you to think us completely crazy, but we have this afternoon witnessed such a sight as…”

“Will kill you,” supplied her brother. “Moreover, we’ve been dying to tell someone about it. Thanks to you, Mr. Vadassy, we live.”

I grinned sheepishly. I was beginning to feel a little embarrassed.

“One of us,” remarked the girl darkly, “won’t live much longer if you don’t get on with it.”

“To business, then!” he announced. “Mr. Vadassy, you know that yacht that came in this morning?”

“Yes.”

“It’s an Italian.”

“Is it?”

“It is. Well, we were down on the beach this afternoon with some of the others. There were the Switzers and the French couple and that old guy with the white beard. A bit later down come the British major and his wife.”

“Oh, hurry up!” said the girl.

“Wait! I want to recreate the atmosphere for Mr. Vadassy. That’s how it happened. They came down a while after everyone else. You know how hot it was. All of us were lying around half asleep in our chairs after that poulet a la creme they gave us at lunch. We just knew the British had come down because we’d heard him saying his chair was unsafe or something.”

“You see,” she broke in, “they were sitting just a little to the right, so we were quite close and saw everything. Well…”

“Be quiet,” said her brother; “you’re spoiling it. Your part comes in a minute. As I was saying, Mr. Vadassy, we were all sitting there wondering whether it was possible for the sun to get much warmer and whether we hadn’t had too much to eat when Mrs. Switzer says something to Mr. Switzer. Well, you know how it is. Even if you don’t know a language, you can often understand the intonation. So I open my eyes and see that the Switzers are looking out across the bay. Then I see that the yacht has lowered a dinghy and that a sailor is rowing it around to the gangway. Down the gangway comes a man in a yachting cap and white drill. He’s got plenty of flesh on him, but he hops into the dinghy neatly enough and the sailor starts to row him towards the beach. Well, everybody perks up at this, probably because it takes their minds off the digesting of the poulet a la creme, and starts talking.” He wagged a dramatic finger. “Little do they know what is in store for them.”

“But for us,” interjected his sister, “the plot is already thickening, for suddenly the two British start talking. The queer thing is that they’re talking Italian. Queerer still, it’s Mrs. Clandon-Hartley who is doing most of the talking. What’s more, she keeps pointing to the dinghy. Then the Major has a look and starts talking back. He doesn’t seem to agree with what she’s saying, for he shakes his head and says something that sounded like a girl’s name, Kay something or other. She didn’t seem to like it and started pointing again. But this time the dinghy is about twelve yards out and the man in the cap is standing up with a boat-hook to catch that iron ring on the rocks when suddenly she lets out a sort of whoop and runs down to the water’s edge calling out something and waving to him.”

“The man with the boat-hook saw her at the same moment and nearly fell overboard with excitement,” said Warren Skelton; “then he shouted, ‘Maria!’ I don’t understand a word of Italian, so I couldn’t tell what they were talking about, but they were chatting away as hard as they could go across the water until finally he got the dinghy alongside the landing rock and jumped ashore.”

“Then,” said the girl, “he flung his arms round her and kissed her two or three times. They evidently knew each other very well indeed. Not that I would care to be kissed even once by this particular man. He was fattish, and when he took his cap off he had his hair cropped so that his head looked like a dirty gray egg. Also he had dewlaps, and if there’s one thing I wish no part of it’s a man with dewlaps. But what surprised me was her. We’d never heard her say a single word before, and here she was behaving like a kid out of school and grinning till we thought her face was going to crack. Obviously she hadn’t expected Signor Dewlaps and it was all a beautiful surprise. He was pointing to the yacht and thumping himself on the chest as though to say, ‘Look what I’ve done,’ and she was pointing up at the hotel and telling him she was staying there. Then they started hugging and kissing again. Everyone on the beach was highly diverted.”

“That is,” qualified Skelton, “all except the Major. He wasn’t looking a bit pleased. In fact, he was looking pretty darn sour. When this second bout of hugging started he got up very slowly from his chair and walked over to them. He just walked, but there was something about the way he walked that made you feel that something was going to happen. The Switzers had started talking to the old Frenchman, but now they shut up. If it hadn’t been for the sound of the sea you could have heard a pin drop on the sand. But nothing happened-then. Signor Dewlaps looked up and saw the Major and grinned at him. You could see they’d met before, but you could also see that they thought nothing at all of each other. They shook hands and Dewlaps went on grinning, but Mrs. Major dried up again as though someone had put an extinguisher on her. Then they all started to talk quietly. Well, I think most of the others lost interest at that point, but I kept on watching them. You see, I’m something of a student of human nature. The proper study of mankind is man, I always say.

“For goodness’ sake,” interrupted his sister, “get on with it. What he’s trying to say, Mr. Vadassy, is that they all looked as if they were saying everything except the one thing they wanted to say.”

“That was,” Skelton cut in, “until somebody did say it. But we had to wait for that. I must admit that I was beginning to lose interest myself when suddenly they, at least the two men, began to raise their voices. You know how Italian sounds from a distance-like a car with a choked carburetor. Well, suddenly, somebody pushes down the accelerator. Dewlaps was jabbering away furiously and waving his hand in the Major’s face. The Major had gone very white. Then Dewlaps stopped and half turned away as though he had finished. But just then he evidently thought of a really dirty crack because he turned back, said something and then put back his head and roared with laughter.

“The next moment I saw the Major bunch his fist and draw back his arm. Somebody yelped-that French girl, I think-then the Major let fly and caught Signor Dewlaps smack in the solar plexus. You ought to have seen it; it was a beauty. Dewlaps stopped laughing with his mouth still open, made a noise like bath water running away, staggered back a pace and sat down squoosh on the sand just as a spent wave was running across it. Mrs. Clandon-Hartley let out a scream, then turned on the Major and started shrieking at him in Italian. And he began to cough, of all things. He couldn’t seem to stop. Of course, by this time everybody, including us, had rushed over. The sailor who had been sitting in the boat hopped out and splashed over to help the young Frenchman with Dewlaps, while the Switzer and I fastened on to the Major. Mrs. Switzer and the French girl and Mary surrounded Mrs. Clandon-Hartley. The old boy with the beard just hopped round saying what a pity it was. Not that there was much for us to do, because the Major couldn’t do anything but cough and gasp ‘swine!’ and Mrs. Clandon-Hartley had started crying and saying in broken English that she was very sorry, and that her husband was a mad wolf. He didn’t look much like it to me. Dewlaps shook his fist and shouted a lot in Italian when he had the breath and trailed off in his wet pants to the dinghy. The Major finally got over his coughing and they both became dignified and went upstairs. Now, aren’t you sorry you missed it?”

“You could have told us what it was all about,” said the girl wistfully.

But I was not thinking very much about what they were saying. I leaned forward anxiously.

“What time did all this happen?”

They both looked rather crestfallen. It must have seemed to them that I was not doing justice to the story.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Skelton impatiently; “about half past three, I should think. Why?”

“And did anyone stay down on the beach the whole afternoon?”

He shrugged a trifle irritably.

“I couldn’t say. There was a lot of coming and going. After all the excitement had blown over a bit, one or two went up to change into bathing suits.”

“I think Philo Vance has got a clue,” said the girl. “Come on, Mr. Vadassy, tell us what’s on your mind.”

“Oh, nothing,” I said feebly. “I just saw Major and Mrs. Clandon-Hartley going upstairs as I went down to the village. She had a handkerchief to her eyes. She must just have been crying.”

“Well, well, well! And I was afraid that you had the whole thing explained. Thank goodness you haven’t, because I’ve worked out a beautiful explanation.”

“We’ve worked out a beautiful explanation,” supplemented her brother.

“All right- we. You see, Mr. Vadassy, we think that many years ago Mrs. Clandon-Hartley was just a simple southern Italian peasant girl living in a simple southern Italian village-you know, all baroque and whitewash and no main drainage-with her parents. She is promised to old Dewlaps, young and handsome then, the son of another brace of peasants. Then to the village comes the bold, bad Major twirling his mustachios. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. What happens? The Major, with his slick city ways and his custom-made suits, dazzles the simple peasant girl. To make a long story short, he carries her off to the big city and marries her.”

“Hey!” said Skelton, “that bit about marrying her wasn’t in the script.”

“Well, he does marry her. Maybe she’s not so simple after all.”

“All right. Let it go.”

“The years roll by.” She smiled at us triumphantly. “Meanwhile the young Dewlaps, embittered and disillusioned-that accounts for his face looking the way it does-has worked and prospered. Starting right from the bottom and working up and up and up, he is now one of the biggest shysters in Italy.”

“It seems to me,” put in her collaborator, “that this story ends all wrong. It ought to be Dewlaps who does the socking and the Major who gets his pants wet.”

The girl looked thoughtful.

“Maybe.” She looked at me. “I guess you must think we’re being cheap over this. But, you see, the whole thing was so very unpleasant really that we should be feeling depressed if we didn’t laugh about it.”

I did not know quite what to say.

“I see,” I mumbled, “that the yacht has gone.”

“Yes, it went about an hour ago,” said Skelton gloomily.

At this moment the Vogels appeared at the top of the steps. There was a subdued air about them. They paused at our table.

“The young people have been telling you of this afternoon’s affair?” he said to me in German.

“Yes, I have heard something of it.”

“An unfortunate business,” he said gravely. “My wife gave Frau Clandon-Hartley some smelling salts, but I do not think they will help much. Poor man. His wife says that he was wounded in the war and that it has affected his brain. He is not, it seems, responsible for his actions. The man from the yacht had, it appears, landed to purchase some wine from Koche’s cellar and beg some ice. Frau Clandon-Hartley recognized in him an old friend. That was all. The poor Major misunderstood.”

They went on up to the hotel.

“What did he say?” said Skelton curiously.

“He said that, according to Mrs. Clandon-Hartley, the Major was badly wounded in the war and that he’s not quite right in the head.”

They were silent for a moment. Then I saw the girl’s forehead pucker thoughtfully.

“You know,” she said to neither of us in particular, “I don’t feel that that can be quite true.”

Her brother snorted impatiently.

“Well, let’s forget it, anyhow. What are you drinking, Mr. Vadassy? Dubonnet sec? Good. That makes three. I’ll toss you who goes up to get them.”

I lost.

As I went up to order the drinks I saw Monsieur Duclos talking excitedly to Koche. He was demonstrating a fierce uppercut to the jaw.

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